When Cullen heard Leliana had chosen someone to replace her as the Inquisition's spymaster, he wasn't sure what to expect. While he respected her work and they'd even had vaguely similar career paths, first dedicating their lives to the Chantry and then to the Inquisition, he knew he didn't understand her, which meant he couldn't predict whom she'd choose. Even if it hadn't been polite to be there for the new spymaster's arrival, he'd have probably been there out of sheer curiosity.
Not that he'd have been the only one. Half of Skyhold seemed to be lurking around pretending to have urgent business right by the gates, trying and mostly failing to seem both normal and unobtrusive. If it hadn't been such an important position, he'd have found it funny, especially when the replacement arrived. All these people had gathered here just to watch the arrival of one inconspicuous elf. It seemed a bit anti-climatic, though he wasn't sure what they'd all been expecting. Of course the new spymaster looked ordinary; it was part of the job description.
The elf in question bowed before them, the movement graceful but somehow flamboyant, as though he were performing for his audience. “I see everyone's turned out to meet me. How nice.”
Antivan, Cullen realized; the accent gave him away immediately. Why did Leliana know so many Antivans?
“Everyone,” Josephine said, “except the Inquisitor. My sincere apologies, but she's been called away unexpectedly. I'm sure she'll want to see you as soon as she returns.”
Clearly recognizing his fellow countryman, the new spymaster took Josephine's hand and kissed it. “Lady Montilyet, always a pleasure.”
“Always, you say,” she scoffed, though she looked pleased rather than offended, “when we haven't been properly introduced.”
“But of course. How could I forget? I am Zevran Arainai, here to serve the Inquisition now that our dear Leliana has been elected Divine.” Releasing Josephine's hand, he turned to Cullen standing next to her. Zevran's eyes swept over him from head to toe, then back up again, though swept wasn't nearly the right word for the way he looked at him. It reminded him somewhat of the way the Orlesian noblewomen had looked at him in Halamshiral, but where their admiration had had more than a hint of the predatory, Zevran's was all appreciation.
When his eyes met Cullen's once more, Zevran gave him a lazy grin. It was just a smile, but somehow Cullen felt warm all the way to his toes in response – not at all the way he usually reacted to being smiled at. “And who might you be?”
He wasn't sure he could answer, not with Zevran looking at him like that, but Josephine filled the gap nicely. For all he knew of Antivan manners, perhaps she had been expected to reply, to make the kind of formal introductions she'd just alluded to before they could speak directly to each other. “This is Commander Cullen. He's in charge of our military.”
“A pleasure,” Zevran said, and something in his voice made it sound like he actually meant it. “I think I shall like this one.”
“What,” Cullen asked, suddenly reminded to be cautious, “do you mean by that?”
Zevran threw back his head and laughed. “If you have to ask, my dear Commander, all I can say is that I shall very much enjoy showing you.”
It was only their second war table meeting since Zevran had joined them and Cullen was already feeling uncomfortable. Leliana had teased him a time or two, but he'd usually been too surprised by it to be offended. She was so often grim that he both never expected the rare flashes of merriment and couldn't hold them against her. Zevran, on the other hand, was such a complete contrast that he wondered what she'd seen in him to think he could take her place. Not only did he seem to take nothing seriously, he also appeared to delight in embarrassing anyone he could (especially Cullen, or at least it felt that way). If it had been anyone but Leliana, he'd have wondered if Zevran blackmailed his way into the job, but somehow he couldn't see Sister Nightingale giving into that.
“We are seeking information here and you suggest we send troops?” Zevran looked across the war table and raised a single eyebrow in a way that was both impressive and made Cullen feel instantly defensive.
“Troops are intimidating,” he pointed out. “Intimidated people will answer our questions.”
This, at least, was familiar territory. His fellow advisors had always complained that he had a one-track mind when it came to advice. Cullen didn't know what they expected. He had experience leading Templars against mages and lately leading regular troops against the horrors the Red Templars had become, but nothing that would cover the more subtle sorts of things the Inquisition often needed done.
“Yes, but they will also remember it quite vividly. I do not think that is the best idea.” Zevran eyed the war table thoughtfully, then looked up and gave Cullen a sly smile. “Ah, I know. We shall compromise. You send your troops, but fewer of them. And instead of parading through the streets, we shall send them to the brothels.”
Cullen nearly choked. “What?”
“Whores hear a great many things, you know. People are not always so careful about what they say in the bedchamber, but they also do not usually think to pay extra for silence. They forget the mouth that gave them pleasure can be put to other uses. I suggest we take advantage of that oversight.”
Zevran looked entirely too pleased with himself and his “compromise,” but Cullen was horrified. Yes, he knew that soldiers visiting brothels was hardly anything new; he wasn't that rustic and naive. Zevran might even have a point about the information. But he was certain there had to be a better way.
“I can't order our soldiers to go to a whorehouse!” Just imagining it made his cheeks heat in the way he'd always hated and had thought he'd finally gotten past. Cullen worked hard to maintain discipline among the Inqusition's troops, but that sort of order would destroy it in a heartbeat. There would be dirty jokes in the barracks for months – well, more dirty jokes than usual. He'd never be able to look his soldiers in the eye again.
“I do not see the problem. You would have no shortage of volunteers. But if you are certain you cannot give the orders, you could instead go yourself. I am sure any whore would be honored to service the Commander of the Inquisition's armies. And if you don't mind my saying so -”
“I do. I do mind,” Cullen interrupted, as firmly as he could manage. “And I won't do it. The Inquisition is associated with the Chantry; if I were seen, it would be terrible for our image.”
“Ah, well. Once a Templar, is it? Too bad.” Zevran shrugged, still smiling, as though he had expected nothing less, then turned to Josephine. “And what does our charming ambassador think?”
“I think you just like embarrassing our Commander.” While Josephine's words might be at least nominally on Cullen's side, her expression suggested she was having trouble holding back laughter.
“How can I not, when he blushes so attractively? It is irresistible.”
Cullen glared at them, arms folded defensively over his chest. Were all Antivans like this? He'd expected better of Josephine, at least. Zevran was clearly a bad influence. “I hate you both.”
The trouble was that he didn't actually hate him. It was true that Zevran made him feel awkward and naive, like the rawest teenage recruit instead of the Inquisition's commander, but as much as Cullen hated that feeling, somehow he couldn't bring himself to hate the elf who caused it.
Maybe it was just that Zevran didn't seem to mean anything by it, or at least not anything malicious. He teased, but even when he disagreed with Cullen's advice, he never suggested Cullen was actually incompetent or unfit for his position.
And he smiled every time he saw him, somehow looking genuinely pleased to see Cullen even when they were both hurrying in opposite directions. He'd been surprised how often it happened - not so often that Zevran seemed to be going out of his way to run into Cullen, but far more than he'd expected. Leliana had mostly stayed in the rookery, speaking to few but her agents, both avian and human. Once they'd come to Skyhold, Cullen had rarely even laid eyes on her when they weren't meeting with the Inquisitor. Somehow he'd thought Zevran would do the same, but the new spymaster was clearly far more social than the old.
In fact, sometimes Cullen felt like he saw him everywhere. He saw him in the hallways, passing to and from the library. He saw him examining the goods at the merchant stalls. He saw him talking to Morrigan in the courtyard, but then, he seemed intent on speaking with everyone sooner or later. Cullen couldn't hear what he was saying during this particular conversation, but Morrigan looked exasperated. He didn't think much of it; that seemed to be almost her default expression and he knew what trying to have a serious conversation with Zevran was like.
He saw him at night as well - in the Herald's Rest, drinking with the Chargers. Cullen looked at the way Zevran seemed to somehow be actually lounging on his chair, the picture of relaxed ease, and felt oddly left out, but when Iron Bull tried to wave him over, he turned away and pretended not to see.
He saw Zevran using the training yard almost every day as well and somehow, without really meaning to, Cullen found he'd gotten in the habit of watching him from the battlements.
The first time had been an accident. Cullen had been taking a break, just trying to get some fresh air and look at something other than paperwork for a few minutes, when he'd noticed the lone figure practicing. It took him a few minutes to realize who it was, but that wasn't so surprising – it was a long way down from the battlements and he hadn't expected to see Zevran there. He had no real need to be, at least so far as Cullen knew – Zevran might have once been an assassin, but the spymaster rarely left Skyhold, sending agents where he once might have gone himself. Cullen didn't know him well enough to know if Zevran disliked this sort of delegating, but he appreciated the necessity. The spymaster, like the commander, was needed here, organizing information into the bigger picture an agent on the ground was too close to see.
Similarly, while he'd have had an easier time recognizing Zevran if he were standing nearby, there were things about his fighting style that were best appreciated from above. Cullen descended one of the stairways halfway, but he didn't try to go closer. If he had, he wouldn't have had such a clear perspective on the patterns of Zevran's movements.
Strange as it might sound, it was the way Zevran fought – or at least, the way he practiced – that made Cullen want to know him better. Cullen didn't know a lot about dual weapon fighting specifically; it wasn't a popular style among either Templars or the sort of recruits who'd come to join the Inquisition and he'd never tried to learn it himself. He knew it was a faster style than most, the blades flashing in an almost mesmerizing dance that required both agility and a good sense of timing to pull off without getting hit.
But what struck him about Zevran's style in particular was the sheer contrast between the way he fought and the way he acted at all other times. Zevran seemed to thrive on attention, his every action calculated to practically scream, Look at me. The elf practicing below seemed almost like a different person: this man was ruthlessly efficient, his every motion practical and economical, never overextending nor adding extra flourishes just for show.
Of course, everyone's style spoke of those who had trained them, but an experienced fighter always put in something of themselves, habits and moves they particularly favored emphasized over those they'd been taught but didn't find suited them in the field. It was enough to make Cullen wonder how much of the Zevran he'd seen was just a show, the distraction to hide the blade beneath. And naturally, once he put it into those words, he wondered how he hadn't seen it before. What, after all, had he expected of an Antivan assassin?
Even if he'd decided he wanted to get to know Zevran, it was hard to find the time to seek him out. Even with Corypheus gone, the Inquisition still had an active military and there was always something waiting for Cullen's attention.
It didn't help that he wasn't sure how to approach the issue. You didn't just walk up to someone with a carefully constructed public image and ask to speak with the real person beneath. Cullen had spent enough time around political figures to learn that much. And he'd been teased enough by Zevran in particular to know how stating he wanted to get to know him better would be taken.
In the end, it was Zevran who came to him. On some level, Cullen supposed he'd known he would if he waited long enough. He'd already noted that Zevran made a point of at least speaking to everyone, if not outright spending time with them. It was inevitable that he'd get around to Cullen eventually.
Unfortunately, his suggestion for spending time with Cullen was a game of Wicked Grace.
The words were scarcely out of Zevran's mouth before Cullen winced. “Has everyone heard that story?”
Zevran smirked at him and didn't appear sorry in the least. “I hear it was quite a memorable sight. But rumor is not always to be trusted; I wished to see for myself.”
“I've learned my lesson about playing with Antivans. No thanks.”
“Ah, yes, the Lady Josephine. Deceptive, is she not? She seems so innocent, you can quite forget that “Ambassador” is another word for “Liar.” Zevran's smile was almost fond, though Cullen couldn't imagine why. “Liar” had never been a compliment anywhere that he'd ever known or even heard about.
His surprise must have shown on his face, because Zevran gave him that single eyebrow raise again, asking a question without bothering with actual words. “Sorry. I guess it's not something I expected you to say.”
“You think me too cynical?”
“No,” Cullen said, though that was part of it. “I just thought that described your job more than hers.”
“Ah, of course. You are quite right, you know. We are both professional liars.” Without asking permission, Zevran sat on the edge of Cullen's desk, then leaned close enough to whisper theatrically, “The difference is what we do when we get caught.”
Zevran's pose wasn't one Cullen thought he could manage himself, not without looking like a complete idiot, but being impressed by Zevran's sense of balance didn't make the tone of his reply any warmer. “You mean you kill people.”
“And you do not? Some soldier you are if you don't kill.”
“Doesn't it bother you?”
Zevran shrugged. “Should it? I was only a boy of seven when I was taught to kill. You, I think, were perhaps not much older. The difference is that in the Crows, we know what we are. You Templars like to pretend.”
Once, Cullen would have been angry at such accusations. He'd have protested, insisted the Templars had nothing at all in common with assassins. But after Kirkwall, he couldn't say that. At the time, he'd thought it justified, but now, he remembered the desperate mages killed or made Tranquil, many begging for mercy while he had none to give, and he couldn't claim any moral high ground.
He lowered his eyes, stared at the paperwork still strewn over his desk without really seeing it, and desperately changed the subject. “Leliana never said how she knew you.”
“Did she not? The Inquisition must be a bad influence; it is quite a tale. I am surprised she could resist telling it. She and I were both companions of the Hero of Ferelden.”
Cullen looked up, surprised. It was hard to imagine someone like Zevran journeying across Ferelden and fighting darksawn. “Were you? I met him once and I don't remember you. But that day... I wasn't at my best.” He winced away from those memories, too, the time that marked what he'd considered to be the end of his idealistic innocence. Instead, he thought of the tales he'd heard about the Warden Commander and his companions. “Wait, when you mentioned the Crows...”
“Ah, yes. I suppose I should have mentioned it earlier, but I did not realize you didn't know. Yes, the Crows and I, you might call us rivals.”
All thoughts of the past or even of getting to know Zevran vanished. “You mean once you joined us, they became an enemy of the Inquisition?” This was bad, very bad. Cullen had heard any number of tales about the Crows, especially all the ones about why you didn't go to war against them.
“Not necessarily. They might settle for merely killing me.”
Cullen just looked at him, searching his almost golden eyes for any trace of insincerity. “Is that meant to be comforting?”
Zevran shrugged again, though there was more tension in it this time; his shoulders were so visibly stiff that it seemed wrong, contrary to everything Cullen had seen of him during their admittedly brief acquaintance. “It is what it is. But my apologies – I see you have work to do and I, I find this is not what I was seeking after all. Perhaps another night.”
By the time Cullen was done adding extra guards and patrols and generally checking Skyhold security, the sky was just beginning to pale with the first hints of the coming dawn. It was only then, as he practically collapsed into bed, that he thought about Zevran's parting words and wondered just what it was that he'd been looking for.
The next time Cullen saw Zevran on the training field, he only watched for a minute or two before he decided that he was tired of keeping his distance. He'd learned all he could from observation; it was time to turn to experience.
He didn't say anything to Zevran first, merely drew his weapon and joined him. Zevran paused a moment, blades still in his hands, then smiled. While it bore the same name as the expression Zevran so often wore, however, this smile was different – challenging, maybe even bloodthirsty. “I had wondered when you'd tire of merely watching.”
Cullen had never noticed Zevran looking up at the battlements while he was out here, but somehow he wasn't surprised that he'd been seen. “I thought I'd see if you lived up to your reputation. And I could use the practice.”
The last part was definitely true; it was obvious as soon as they started. Cullen did more training and tactics than actually fighting these days, but that was no excuse. It didn't help that he wasn't used to defending himself against Zevran's style, but that merely meant he should have joined him earlier. This was unlikely to be the only time he found himself facing an assassin, especially if the Crows were going to start causing problems.
Just as there were things he'd only been able to see from above, there were things he noticed only here, trading blows and taking each other's measure. This close, he could see Zevran's expression and see the tension, the need to be not just good or even efficient, but perfect because even a tiny mistake could result in death.
And somehow it illuminated his own weaknesses as well; the holes in his defenses both in and out of combat. Cullen had never been good with words. If there were any doubt, all one had to do was look at his history. He'd called himself a Templar and thought he knew what that meant, but his entire life showed him he'd never understood it at all. But when he'd walked away, given up the order and the lyrium and everything he'd built his adult identity around, he'd been surprised to find there was still something left. He was still a warrior, still a commander, even, and being in the training ring with someone made far more sense to him than Wicked Grace or balls or even compliments ever would.
But if it were a conversation, Zevran still outmatched him. Cullen had kept up for awhile, but eventually he was just a bit too slow blocking one of Zevran's blades; his weapon was just out of position enough that the sword slipped past and cut the inside of his forearm.
To his credit, Zevran stopped immediately, bowing and sheathing his weapons in a clear signal that they were finished for the day. “I trust you are satisfied?”
“Yes,” Cullen replied, the word slow and a bit drawn out. “We'll have to do this again sometime.”
Zevran returned to Cullen's office that night. He carried a wine bottle instead of cards and offered it along with an apologetic smile. “I wish to apologize for this afternoon. I shouldn't have cut you.”
“No,” Cullen shook his head. “It's my fault. I know better than to practice with live weapons.”
“As you say, though as I recall, I did not stop you.” Zevran set the bottle down and smiled more genuinely. “Now that that's out of the way, perhaps I can persuade you to dispense with the guards? It is not that they are so unpleasant to look at, but they are rather in the way.”
“You told me yourself that you were in danger!” Cullen couldn't keep himself from pointing this out. Guards were merely a reasonable precaution, given the circumstances.
“I have been handling the Crows myself for quite some time,” Zevran countered. “Though it is nice to hear you care, there are better ways to show it. Perhaps -”
Cullen cut him off, refusing to take the last part seriously. It was just a distraction, words meant to fluster him so he'd do as Zevran wanted. “You have to sleep sometime.”
Zevran laughed at that, the same way he had laughed when they'd first met at the gates of Skyhold. “If you wish to guard me in my sleep, you could join me. Far more effective and enjoyable for us both.”
“Why do you always do that?” Cullen hadn't meant to ask, but the words slipped out before he could call them back.
“Why not? Does the idea of sharing my bed make you so uncomfortable?” A question for a question, but Zevran sounded honestly curious.
“Yes!” But that answer was automatic, the one expected of him and not necessarily what he truly felt. Now that he'd actually been asked, Cullen paused to consider. The way Zevran flirted (if you could even call such direct propositioning flirting) made him embarrassed, at least when others overheard. He knew what gossip in the barracks was like. But that was his reaction to what others would think, not to the idea itself.
Still silent, Cullen looked at Zevran and thought about what he'd seen of him so far: the way he'd smiled at Cullen the first time they met and the way he'd fit into the Inquisition almost seamlessly, accepted as though he'd always been one of them on the strength of his charisma alone. That aspect of Zevran intimidated him, made him feel young and inexperienced in a way he'd thought he'd never feel again – just a rural boy with big dreams and no idea at all what to do about them. How could he possibly be good enough for someone with so much more experience, someone good at everything he wasn't?
But when he thought of Zevran's daily practice session, each strike carefully calculated to kill his imaginary opponent with the least wasted effort possible, he thought they had something in common. However different they seemed, they were both trying to make up for their past mistakes and previous loyalties. They both felt that this might be their last chance. He couldn't explain why he was so certain, nor quantify what it was about something as ordinary as weapon practice that told him this, yet Cullen didn't question it.
“... No. I don't know.” Cullen stood and turned away, running his sword hand through his hair in frustration and cursing when the hair caught on the calluses. This was why this sort of thing was discouraged! “But I'm sure you don't mean any of it. You say those things to everyone.”
“Not quite everyone.” Cullen heard Zevran's footsteps as he approached and was braced for his touch as soon as heard him stop. It wasn't a particularly demanding or even sexual touch, just a hand on his arm, but even though he'd expected it, he turned to look. “If you doubt my sincerity, perhaps you'll permit me to prove it.”
Before Cullen could answer, Zevran stepped closer, rising up onto his toes to be able to kiss him. It wasn't much of a kiss either, little more than a brush of lips, but it was an invitation to more – more he was surprised to find he might actually want. It was as though he'd locked part of himself away after Kinloch Hold and someone had just offered him a key. Maybe, he thought, he'd been lying to himself for a very long time and now, at long last, it was time to stop pretending.
Cullen took a step back, but wasn't surprised to find he was smiling. “I just might take you up on that.”